Photography / Hands-on Review

The Pentax 645Z, in the Eyes of Five Working Photographers

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Rarely does a camera come along that piques the interest of such a broad variety of photographers. Often, cameras are targeted solely at the professional reportage shooter, or the street photographer, the hobbyist, or even the collector. Cameras have a way of generating an identity based on, of course, their specifications, as well as numerous other qualities including legacy, design, and intended use. These factors alone can isolate cameras, or even genres of cameras, and generate a stigma surrounding a certain type of camera. Medium format is often one of these prestigious classes; coveted for image quality, loathed for expense, inflexibility, and hassle. This is where the Pentax 645Z breaks the mold, and attempts to generate a significantly broader range of appeal through its streamlined design, incorporation of more modern, wide-ranging features, and its availability to the general photographer.

As excited as many about this camera, we jumped at the opportunity to spend some time working with camera over a longer period of time than many of our B&H reviews, and took advantage by getting the 645Z in the hands of five photographers. Each photographer was given the chance to substitute this camera for his normal workhorse, and invited to share feedback on what is was like to work with the Pentax 645Z as they would in their normal, day-to-day routine.

A Quick Intro to the 645Z, and How We Got Here

For those unfamiliar with the 645Z, it is Pentax's most recent iteration of the venerable 645 series of medium format cameras, and was announced in 2014. As a system, the Pentax 645 debuted in the mid 1980s as a medium format, 6 x 4.5cm film camera. Compared to other cameras of the time, the 645 was unique in that it lacked the modularity of other systems and had a fixed film back to cut down on weight and size. The original 645 was then succeeded by the much improved 645N, which added autofocus, more advanced exposure metering, and some other interface updates. The film era ended in the early 2000s with the release of the 645NII, which saw some cosmetic enhancements, as well as more refined exposure settings and a mirror lock-up function.

Nearly ten years later, Pentax made its entrance into the medium format digital market with the 645D. Again unique in comparison to other manufacturers, the 645D features a fixed back that enables its design to be more compact and weather-sealed. This model featured a 40MP CCD sensor, measuring 44 x 33mm, and it appealed to Pentax 645 legacy users through its support of all 645 mount lenses.

Fast-forward to the present, and the 645Z is the latest in this series that now spans more than 30 years. Like the transition from the original 645 to the 645N, the 645Z improved upon its predecessor in numerous ways. Arguably the most notable change is the switch to a CMOS sensor, along with an upped resolution to 51.4MP. A larger rear LCD was added, 3.2" versus the former's 3.0", and it gained a tilting design for easier use. The 645Z also added a much expanded sensitivity range up to ISO 204800, faster continuous shooting at 3 fps, an improved 27-point AF system, and the ability to record full HD video—a first for medium format DSLRs.

All of these changes certainly make for an exciting camera, but what is arguably most compelling for a system of this kind is the continuity from the first design in 1984 to the most recent release in 2014.

Alexi Hobbs

Based in Montreal, Alexi Hobbs is a photographer who has a broad list of editorial and commercial clients, including Time, Dwell, Travel + Leisure, and the Wall Street Journal. Currently distinct to our other reviewers, Hobbs already owns the 645Z and has begun working with it on a regular basis. Prior to owning the Pentax, he worked regularly with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLR, along with a pair of primes, for most of his commercial shooting, along with either Mamiya 7 or RZ67 film cameras for personal projects and some editorial work. In regard to commercial shooting, Hobbs says, the "645Z has definitely completely replaced the 5D, although I still bring it as backup," and goes on to add that he has begun to use it for personal projects, too, but still sticks to film the majority of the time. 

Photographs © Alexi Hobbs
 

"The main reason I got the 645Z in the first place was because I had to shoot an ad job that required medium format resolution, for billboards mainly, and film wasn't an option" says Hobbs. "The main highlights I noticed when I first started using it were the flexibility of the files: their high dynamic range allows you to push or pull your exposure and save highlights or shadows in a big way. I also really loved going back to the classic medium format 4:3 aspect ratio, rather than the 3:2 you have with the 5D. The image feel also reminded me of medium format [film], the photographs I made with the 645Z didn't feel flat, like the 5D files. You could feel the air between the lens and the subject. In short, I had never been excited to take out my 5D; the 645Z, on the other hand, made me look forward to shooting again."

Even with such a positive initial response to the camera, there were some drawbacks to switching to the 645Z, such as "the slow maximum sync speed, which really limits flash use in broad daylight, without using ND filters." The 645Z is limited to a top sync speed of 1/125 second, which is notably lower than many other competing, current DSLRs. Also, unlike other medium format systems, Pentax does not offer any current leaf shutter lenses, with the only option to look for manual focus legacy lenses to achieve a marginally faster sync speed.

"I also found it more difficult to work with fewer focus points available. This drawback, however, isn't really a drawback—It just forces you to be more careful in your focusing and re-composing, which is part of shooting medium format anyway. It forces you to slow down, which I was happy to do as it brought me back to my MF film basics."



 

Along with the body, Hobbs photographs with the D FA 645 55mm f/2.8 AL [IF] SDM AW lens and the older FA 645 120mm f/4 Macro lens. The 55mm lens is the standard, slightly wider-than-normal prime that effectively serves as the kit lens for the 645Z. Fast for medium format, Hobbs's only critique of the lens is that it felt "a tad too wide" with its 43.5mm equivalent focal length in relation to 35mm format DSLRs. "The 55 is very good, though," and it's design is well-matched to the updated form factor of the 645Z, whereas the 120mm f/4 macro has an older design and slower focusing mechanism intended for use with Pentax's 645 film cameras. "It's really good when you are able to get it focused, it is very slow at finding its focus and often searches for far too long, all the while emitting a very loud buzzing sound that makes any portrait subject wonder if your camera isn't about to fall apart. On top of that, it is only sharp starting at f/8. This being said, if you do get it focused on the right thing, with enough light to shoot f/8, then the resulting image is beautiful. It's just a very finicky lens."

When asked on how the switch to medium format digital affected his workflow, Hobbs responded, "The main thing I had to adjust was the number of hard drives I now needed for the large files and the time I needed to check focus; each image takes a few seconds to load, so when you've got a few hundred files, it can be a long process." And on the topic of what made him commit to switching to the 645Z: "Honestly, I started shooting digital with a 5D out of necessity, to remain viable as a business and to shorten my post-processing time by removing scanning from the equation, but I am a medium format shooter, from the format to the type of image quality, and the 645Z was the first digital medium format system that I could afford, so it was the logical step for me."

David Brandon Geeting

Brooklyn-based image-maker David Brandon Geeting is an editorial and commercial photographer who uses his creative background to produce compelling still life and portraits for a range of clients and applications, including Bloomberg Businessweek, American Express, Verizon, The New York Times T Magazine, and VICE, among others. Geeting is also well-versed in the art photography world, routinely exhibiting in the US and abroad, and has had books of his photographs published.


Photographs © David Brandon Geeting
 

Differing from Alexi Hobbs, Geeting was given the opportunity to substitute a Pentax 645Z for his regular camera and offered an assignment to photograph a selection of cameras from the Used Department here at the B&H Photo Video SuperStore. His playful arrangements, use of color and composition, and high-key lighting proved an ideal match for photographing some of the unique and collectable photographic gear that routinely passes through the B&H doors. After photographing in his usual manner, we spoke to Geeting on what it was like to work with a new camera on assignment.

Geeting's usual setup is a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with standard EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens, and replacing these tools were the Pentax 645Z along with the 55mm f/2.8 and D FA 645 90mm f/2.8 Macro ED AW SR lenses. When asked if he felt the Pentax could be a suitable replacement for his Canon, Geeting replied, "Yes and no—the 645Z would be amazing to use for more slowed-down, controlled studio shots. But for walking around and shooting on the fly, or shooting anything fast paced, such as people moving or objects in mid-air, it would be sort of difficult to use—the autofocus takes a while, but once it's locked in, the results were beautiful. I also thought the slower sync speed would be limiting, but for controlled stuff I think I could work around it pretty easily." He went on to also point out that "it was slightly heavier than I would have liked; it's probably best used on a tripod."

Countering his criticisms, Geeting did point out that "the size of the frame [4:3] is great, much chunkier than the 5D Mark III that I'm used to" and he also commented on how intuitive to use the camera was, even when picking it up for the first time at the shoot.

After the shoot, during post production, Geeting stated, "Looking at the files made me like the camera even more—the resolution and quality of the image was amazing, you could make some great prints from these files."

Chuck Ärlund

Inspired by a deep musical interest, Chuck Ärlund is a fashion and portrait photographer based in Nashville, Tennessee, who frequently leads lighting classes and workshops, and teaches photography at Middle Tennessee State University. His photography is characterized by a highly stylized look that clearly shows off his own rock-and-roll sensibilities. Part well-controlled and part off-the-cuff, Ärlund's photography shows slick tendencies, along with a distinct sense of improvisation.

Photographs © Chuck Ärlund
 

Ärlund was given the chance to work with the 645Z after first handling it during the 2015 Wedding and Portrait Photographers International conference. After first using the camera, Ärlund liked that the camera "felt exactly like I was hoping. Much like my original 645 film camera, [the 645Z] felt like a slightly oversized DSLR." In practical experience, Ärlund has worked with the 645Z on three fashion shoots, a few personal projects, and has led an educational program with the camera.

Prior to working with the 645Z regularly, "my setup was a Canon [DSLR] system with only three lenses: the 17-40mm, a 50mm, and a 70-200mm" notes Ärlund, who also incorporates "a lot of film into my setup, including my original Pentax 645, a Rolleiflex, and some toy cameras. I'm certain the 645Z could replace my Canon system."

Beyond his initial reactions to the form factor of the camera, some other aspects of the camera that appealed to Ärlund included simply "looking through the viewfinder and working with medium format again. Then you zoom out to check focus and are blown away with the clarity." He also liked that the camera was "very simple to get the hang of, no menu systems were out of place... and I have old lenses from my film system that work really well with the digital system." 

Specifically in regard to his teaching practice, Ärlund did remark, "I wish it had Wi-Fi (aside from the ability to use FLU cards) like the Canon... [I really like] the ability to have an iPad to view what is going on without needing to do any file transfer, and I use that feature for teaching and for clients to see what I'm shooting." He also commented, "I'm not necessarily in this ballpark, but I know that the 1/125-second sync speed can be an issue; however, I have not had any problems shooting with that, but I know it is a concern among many photographers."

Grant Willing

Grant Willing is based in Brooklyn, New York, and is an art and editorial photographer who has shot for The New York Times, Aftonbladet, Kaleidoscope Magazine, and Subbacultcha, among other publications, and has exhibited his work both nationally and abroad. He is primarily a landscape and environmental photographer who draws inspiration from music and his surroundings.


Photographs © Grant Willing 
 

Willing replaced his usual array of medium and large format film cameras with the Pentax 645Z and set out to photograph a series of landscapes much in the manner of his usual work. On beginning to work with the 645Z, Willing states, "I had no issues switching to the 645Z; while I primarily work with my Mamiya 7 II and Linhof Technika 4 x 5", the amount of control on the 645Z felt just right. The size was comfortable to handle, and the weight of the body plus a lens or two wasn't overbearing." Unlike the other photographers in this review, Willing championed the camera's ability to be a versatile tool for walk-around shoots, "I'm used to working with larger, heavier cameras, so the 645Z's weight never really got to me until the end of a day's shoot where I could be walking around for hours at a time. I know many people see this camera as an ideal tool for studio shooting or portraits, but for me this felt like a perfect match for landscape—you get the high resolution that's pretty essential for my needs of making prints and you get a really broad dynamic range that's perfect for working in mixed and changing light." 

When asked if he could see the 645Z replacing his usual setup, Willing stated, "I'm not entirely sure yet, but it was one of the more enjoyable experiences I've had working with a digital camera in a while. I also own a Nikon D800, which I mainly use for editorial work, but it has never been a camera that's inspired me for personal projects; the 645Z, on the other hand, was a tool I seriously enjoyed working with, mainly due to the viewing experience and just the look of the files." Countering his overall positive attitude in working with the camera, Willing also adds, "the look of digital still doesn't match film for me, and it's obviously not a resolution-type thing anymore. The 645Z does offer more 'warmth' to the imagery [compared to other digital cameras], but it still has a sterility that's hard to tame."

He also commented on some performance-related attributes, "the battery life really impressed me, actually. And the ability to quickly dial-in your settings without having to figure too much out about the menus was a relief. I never ran into the flash sync speed issue that seems to bother a lot of other shooters, but I'll chalk that up to the fact that I'm very used to shooting with a top shutter speed of only 1/500 second or so, and out of habit almost always shoot with a flash at 1/125 or 1/60, regardless of the camera in use. Also, the autofocus speed was okay for me; again, I'm used to using manual focus, so any time I'm shooting with autofocus, my expectations are likely lower than those who shoot with the fastest DSLRs around."

After having the chance to shoot for a while, one of Willing's most-liked assets of the post-production workflow associated with the 645Z is "that it shoots in DNG, and the files are really easy to work with. Also, since I tend to work in black-and-white, I actually appreciated the amount of color information in the files, as it gave me more latitude when doing channel mixing in post to create grayscale images with a range of controllable tones."

In closing, Willing stated, "If there was a new digital camera I'd try to spring for, the 645Z would be near the top of my list. I really appreciate everything that's crammed into it. I can't comment too much on pushing this camera to its limits or maxing out its speed since that's not really what I look for in a camera. I can say that the operability and enjoyment of use, along with the image quality, were very high, and that's what matters most to me."

John David Pittman

Known for a controlled sense of light and ability to work and interact with a wide range of subjects, Arkansas-based photographer John David Pittman interjects a sense of humor and humanity into his portraiture. After becoming a professional commercial and editorial shooter in 2011, he has gained an extensive client list, including Ford Motor Co., AT&T, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Arkansas Business Publishing Group, and the American Taekwondo Association.

Photographs © John David Pittman 
 

Pittman was offered the chance to work with the Pentax 645Z and 55mm f/2.8 lens for a month, and introduced it into his practice of environmental and studio portraits. His daily assortment of gear includes a Nikon D800 DSLR with a range of Sigma glass, and among his first impressions of the 645Z was how he adapted to the form factor quite easily compared to other larger medium format systems, and how it reminded him of working with a full-frame DSLR.

"The feel of the camera didn't change anything for me. However, the sync speed was limiting in situations, I love being able to use high speed sync in situations with my Nikon system and Profoto B1s," remarked Pittman, on what he deemed to be the main limiting factor if switching to the Pentax system for shooting, "[the 645Z] could definitely replace the D800 as a studio camera or controlled set camera, but the max sync speed of 1/125 second is an issue for me."

Beyond the sync speed, Pittman did remark on the overall look of the files: "Of course, the image quality and color tones coming from the sensor are amazing. I found colors to be more true right out of the gate with the files from this camera. Less tweaking to get the balance right in the beginning. Obviously, the sheer size of the file is something to get used to.”



 

In addition to the 55mm f/2.8 lens, Pittman also worked with a personal copy of an older Pentax 645 system lens, the smc PENTAX-A 645 75mm f/2.8. "The manual focus was smooth on it and I got some great images. I really liked being able to easily use older glass on this new camera." The lens came from Pittman's own original Pentax 645 film camera; however, he noted, "I don't think owning it [the 645] made it any easier to use," implying that the 645Z was intuitive to use straight away.

 

Finally we spoke to Pittman about working with the 645Z in comparison to other medium format systems, where he remarked, "The biggest thing that stood out to me is that you get the comparable medium format image quality in a camera you don't feel that you have to treat with kid gloves. A rugged medium format system... how about that?"

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Many thanks for the article. I look for 'presence' in an image. It encompasses clarity, focus, resolution and sharpness but includes something more that's difficult to define - 'I can't explain it, but I know it when I see it'. The 645 images in the article all show this - even the relatively mundane shot of cameras at B&H. This is one of the features for me that marks out the 645Z from many 35 mm competitors. I can understand the reservations of the photographers who have a commercial interest and need that elusive combination of 35mm flexibility and image quality. The best 35mm images have a quality that's undeniable, but it's different from the 645 (or other medium and large format images). For me, the difference could be expressed along the lines that smaller format images can have an impact and 'reach' (i.e reaching into new areas or probing ideas that extend one's thinking), but medium and large format images can draw one in and convey 'feeling' in a way that I find more difficult (though not impossible) in smaller format. 

I work mostly in full frame and micro 4/3 digital and struggle to attain the quality and 'feel' that I want. I'm experimenting with 6x9 format (film) but have yet to master the technique. The 645Z looks like a great option ... one day .... 

I was expecting the see a relative difference between medium format film and 35mm film but it just isn't there. These are of course good photos and I have a lot of respect for Pentax cameras but I didn't see anything here that isn't rivaled by a full frame DSLR. I shot, developed and printed medium format film many years ago and admittedly with inexpensive cameras and yet compared to popular 35mm film cameras of the day that cost four times what my medium formats cost my prints were four time better than the stuff coming from the 35mm cameras regardless of who was doing the shooting. I have old books on photography and as I look through them I see photo after photo that is good and shot with 35mm film and every once in a while I see one that is so sharp and clear there is no comparison to the others and the caption will show it was shot on medium format film. I just didn’t see that here.

This past summer was spent doing a three months driving trip to Alaska.  My main camera was a 645D and an passel of lenses including the new 28-45 zoom.  While I would have loved to have done the summer with a 645Z, the 645D did wonders for capturing detail for many landscapes and people images.  If I could have afforded it, I would have traded up to the 645Z for the trip, but instead put the money into the 28-45 zoom -- probably shot 60-70% of my images with this new lens.  My backup system was a Canon 6D and lenses. During the school year, I teach digital classes in the Visual and Performing Arts department at Clark University.

The pictures are not very sharp. 

,ok for portraits but not for sceneries

Maybe the JPGs included in the article don't look sharp, but I can assure you that the original RAW files are sharper than with any other camera...

Extremely useful article on many counts. thanks. 

Up to 1/8000th second flash synch is possible with Priolite and 645z

max shutter speed is 1/4000th4 so...

Love Mr. Willing's photo of the structure being 're-taken' by nature...the shrubbery. Would like to see it  printed BIG.

Me too, Mr. Willing.

I wanted to be blown away... I wasn't. Nice images but I harken back to the old adage that the camera does not make the photograph, the photographer does.

Right on, For real though, I love pentax and I own many 645 film bodies but your right I was not blown away or did I get that OH!! this is medium format feeling  when i saw the images -  

Effectively the sony a7rii with its glass to mirror closeness, more so then dslrs , gives the exact same DOF range effect as a medium format which has a larger sensor BUT the glass is further away . that relationship of distance from sensor to glass effects DOF do medium format digital is worthless unless you need 16 bit mamiya,hassy files or leaf lens/shutter sync speeds .  Sony is alot faster, lighter and more capable and with the 55 1.8 - you wont tell a difference in cameras based on color gamut and DOF, cant see spending for this and having no leaf shutter or leaf lenses.

I don't know many photographers who have been around the block a few times who expect to be "blown away" by anyone's work.  It's just not a realistic expectation giving the plethora of photography in every skill level, represented in the world today. 

There's more to shooting medium format than speed.  I don't fancy mirrorless, and I'm not about to buy a body where I'm forced to look at a glowing screen.  I don't mind the mirror one bit as I like looking through the lens.  The difference between 14 bit and 16 bit isn't worth discussing as the difference is more academic and scientific than practical.  There is no practical difference between the two in most shooting and in most post processing work.  You have to go far out of your way to demonstrate/realize the difference.  The versatility of shooting with a Canon 5Ds over the Sony a7II would win me over let alone shooting the 645z over the Sony.  It's not what's on paper that makes the system great, it's all the practical things that matter to me that isn't often in the specs to include nuances in handling the camera.  There is no way I would've picked the a7ii (or 5Ds/r) over the Pentax 645z.  Lacking modern leaf shutter lenses is a black mark on Pentax.  However, I don't see Ricoh/Pentax never bringing forth a leaf shutter lens... do you?  The medium format aspect ratio is also fancied over the typical 3:2 by a lot of photographers including myself.  If all you're looking for is getting from home to work and back, then a Toyota Corolla might suit you just fine; however be cognizant that others might not object to, and even justify, spending over $100k, on a car they feel offers a better experience, comfort, and visual aesthetic.   A camera is like a car ... it's about whatever tool works best for *you*, not everyone else. ;)

Well stated.  I own both a Nikon D800 and the Pentax 645z.  The image quality of the Pentax is superior to the Nikon at every fstop on most lenses.  The Pentax is also easier to use than the Nikon.  I also prefer the 4:3 image ratio.

I also own Nikon but the D800E and a Pentax 645z... I would mention an additional advantage of the 645z over the D800E, the autofocus in low light... The 645z focuses much better in low light...

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